24 March 2007

More Follow-up on the Maputo Explosions

More rumors are swirling around Maputo about what happened. Some verified by eyewitnesses, while others are still just hearsay. The current official dead count is 76 and hundreds more wounded. Eyewitnesses will tell you that the count is way too low.

Eyewitness accounts:

That big explosion I posted about - the one that caused my hair to fly up even though I was located 3 miles from the burning depot and inside my house. That bomb registered an 8 on the Richter Scale (that's the scale seismologists use to measure earthquakes just in case you forgot). I am glad I stayed in my apartment, although at the time I really wanted to see the fire and smoke (it does pay to occasionally listen to the little reasonable voice in the back of my head telling me to do the safe thing). The news reports that the shockwaves were felt over 25km away from the detonation - windows were shattered.

Natalina, Ventriss, and Etienne were out shopping and watched the roof of the department store they were in twist, buckle and shake. Natalina suggested to the store manager that they might want to consider closing early. My friend Bill saw the really big explosion as a gigantic, 50+ft tall fireball from his terrace. He works out by the depot and said that he wasn't sent home until 5pm. He was thankful (and proud) that his teenage sons were smart and got themselves and their grandma into an alcove without windows, inside the house.

Smaller explosions also registered on the Richter Scale. Maputo is build on sand dunes, so I would guess that it is very easy for shockwaves to travel. If my brother, the geologist, reads this maybe he'll fill me in a little better. Also, don't tell mom and dad. But if you do, Wil, let them know that I am okay and in one piece. If you don't, I'll kick your butt when I get home.

The munitions depot that exploded was located at the end of the airport runway - so no flights until noon yesterday. There were tracer bullets, Soviet-made short range missiles, bombs, etc. that exploded in the fire. Whole families were crushed in their homes as they huddled together as far from windows as possible. Other friends, who were in the neighborhoods checking up on friends, report that at least 2 people found headless spouses. Lots of people had stomach wounds from the shrapnel and flying debris. The dead and living had lost legs and arms. Homes were flattened. The news here reported a lot of confusion and panic as people tried to board chapas to get out of the area. I don't know if anyone was hurt in the rush, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The schools that sent children home when the bombs started exploding now have many children missing. Schools that kept children have not lost students. Three schools of over 1000 students in near proximity to the depot are completely gone. One political scientist student who went to check on friends, found 4 young men (early 20s) trying to get women and children on chapas out of the area because of the remaining unexploded ordinance (more on that later). She found a little, disoriented boy wandering around more than 10 km from his home - apparently he just ran in the confusion and was still discombobulated the next day (finally I got to use that word). He lacked the $0.20 he needed to catch a chapa home, so she gave him the money hoping that he had a family to go home to.

Natalina told me of 2 different families that have unexploded ordinance sitting in the middle of their living rooms - short range missiles. They have no other place to go. There is also an unexploded bomb (or missile, didn't catch which) sitting in the middle of Maputo's main cemetery. Unless people, mainly orphans, are still squatting in the cemetery (like they were in 2004), few people should be hurt.

Overall, the sense is that there are way more dead than reported. The Minister of Defense reported that 3 people were dead Friday morning. Soon after, the Minister of Health reported 72 dead saying he had proof in the corpses sitting in city hospitals. Consulates and agencies are prepared to help with the bomb clean up and storage, but as of Friday afternoon at 4pm there was no word from the Mozambican government according to my sources. The aid agencies that work with children did receive a call for help.

So what happened? Apparently, at least 20 tons of unexploded ordinance were being stored in an arms depot in the Malhazine neighborhood. This is only one of 30 arms depots located in and around the city (hence the vaguely worded US Embassy warning). The conditions for storage are not good and Mozambique has "hundreds of tonnes" of unexploded ordinance left over from the Civil War. It was the heat that set them off and it isn't the first time this year. There were some explosions in January too. I don't recall the incident, so it must not have been so big or killed so many.

It may sound like I am excited over all of this. I am. Excited that I am still alive and unhurt, and that my friends and co-workers are alive and unhurt. It's an excited relief - the afterglow of an adrenaline rush. But there is a little worry in that I know the temperatures will climb again. Bill put it like this at the weekly volley ball game, "We've experienced living in a war zone without the war." (Yes, we played volley ball the next day. Most people are carrying on with their business, even though they also recognize that this is a major freaking disaster. The socializing helped let off some steam and talk.) I cannot imagine how the soldiers and civilians in Iraq (or anyone living in a war zone past or present) deal with this on a daily basis - they also have the added negative that you don't necessarily know who the enemy is or when they will strike. At least, Mozambique is a country at peace with itself and its neighbors.


Apparently I wasn't as safe as I thought. Supposedly, there is an unexploded short range missile sitting in the middle of the Safeway grocery store parking lot. That is about 1 kilometer from my house. I don't think I'll be going to check. Some of the missile and bullets and bombs launched before they exploded, so my 4 kms or so from the depot wasn't really that much of a distance for a short range missile.

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